TUSCALOOSA, Alabama (Reuters) - Stunned residents of the southern university town of Tuscaloosa on Thursday surveyed a shocking landscape of twisted wreckage left by one of the biggest tornadoes ever to hit the state of Alabama.
In scenes reminiscent of the kind of destruction wrought by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the jumbled rubble of shattered homes and businesses lay entangled with crushed cars, uprooted trees and downed power lines.
At least 37 people were killed in Tuscaloosa, city mayor Walter Maddox said, out of more than 220 who lost their lives when a series of tornadoes and storms ripped from west to east across seven southern states in recent days.
Local residents, though hardened to storms that frequently roar through the humid U.S. south, described as unbelievable the destruction inflicted by the mile-wide twister that struck on Wednesday.
“When I opened my eyes, I had no roof,” said Angela Smith, 22, standing in what was her dining room. Her husband Clay Smith had pulled a body from a neighbor’s home, she said.
Smith and others told tales of survival, and many people recorded the devastation on cellphones and video cameras.
“I made it. I got in a closet, put a pillow over my face and held on for dear life because it started sucking me up,” Smith said.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN the tornado cut a seven-mile path of devastation through the city of 95,000 inhabitants. It is home to the University of Alabama whose football team, nicknamed the Crimson Tide, is one of the most successful in the country.
“I don’t know how anyone survived ... it’s an amazing scene, there’s parts of the city that I don’t recognize,” Maddox said in comments to CNN.
Hundreds of people stared awe-struck at wreckage on McFarland Boulevard, a commercial road running through the city. Many students carried what was left of their possessions in bags and suitcases as they walked down city streets.
The tornado, which flipped vehicles and flattened houses, shops and gas stations, could have been the biggest ever to hit Alabama, meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said on the AccuWeather.com website.
Robert Jackson, 50, a Tuscaloosa carpenter, said he knew it was time to get inside when he saw large sheds from a local Home Depot hardware store fly into the air.
“I felt a real cool breeze and saw debris circling. I ran to the hallway with my wife and children. We felt the tornado shaking the house. I haven’t prayed that hard in my whole life,” he told Reuters.
He emerged to find his house still standing but his concern quickly turned to his daughter, who worked two blocks away in a Wendy’s fast restaurant. She survived by climbing into a freezer, but he was shocked by the scene that greeted him as he went to find her.
“I saw four bodies and a lot of blood. People were running out. Electricity was popping. Gas fires were shooting up in the air. People were trapped in houses and screaming for help but we couldn’t get to them,” he said.
Large parts of the city were without power and businesses were at a standstill on Thursday,.
The tornado reduced the Quick Pawn shop on 15th Street to rubble no higher than 3 feet (one meter) high, studded with planks of wood and tires.
Assorted items were scattered in the wreckage including a pillow, a shirt, a Pepsi machine and a desk chair, a testament to the tornado’s power to rearrange a neighborhood.
“We mostly deal in firearms and jewelry. Our firearms were thrown into the street and the neighborhood and were collected by the police,” said owner Tim Evans, 46, adding that there was no looting.
Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and editing by Anthony Boadle